Peoples and Nations

Copycat Killers: Becoming Famous by Becoming Infamous

Copycat Killers: Becoming Famous by Becoming Infamous

The following article on copycat killers is an excerpt from Mel Ayton's Hunting the President: Threats, Plots, and Assassination Attempts-From FDR to Obama.


Many assassins and would-be assassins of U.S. presidents were copycat killers obsessed with assassins from the past. Some borrowed books from libraries or visited the scenes of famous assassinations. Giuseppe Zangara kept a newspaper clipping of the Lincoln assassination in his hotel room.

Lee Harvey Oswald read books about the assassination of Louisiana governor Huey Long. Sirhan Sirhan read books about Oswald and European assassinations. John Hinckley not only visited Ford's Theatre, the scene of Lincoln's assassination, before he attempted to kill President Reagan, but also read extensively about Oswald, Sirhan, and Bremer and had a bibliography of published materials on the JFK assassination.

Shortly before he attempted to shoot President Clinton, Francisco Martin Duran visited the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, scene of the sniper killing of JFK, and checked into the Washington, D.C., hotel where Hinckley shot Reagan.

Incidents of Copycat killers have occurred after nearly every serious presidential threat or attack. And much has been written about the media's role in instigating copycat threats. The media's portrayal of assassinations and assassination attempts is a sensitive matter to the Secret Service and congressional leaders.

The morning after Sara Jane Moore first made the nation's front pages and television screens for her attempt on President Ford's life, House of Representatives minority leader John Rhodes objected. “What possible good purpose can come from this intense coverage of terrorist activity?” he asked. “Individuals of questionable mental stability will surely begin to conclude that they too can obtain national publicity and an enlarged forum for their views on redwood trees and other irrelevancies simply by attempting to gun down the President.” Senate minority leader Hugh Scott asked, “Do cover stories in national newsmagazines incite to violence?”

But in a free and democratic society, few editors would accept the notion of self-censorship. And many argue that the consequences of preventing news organizations from reporting such incidents would be disastrous for democracy.

As Norman E. Isaacs, editor in residence at the Columbia University School of Journalism put it, “There must be a sense of discretion, yet not to the point where we suppress news. The public wants every scrap of detail about someone deranged enough to take a pot shot at the President. We're going to cover it. There's no other way.”